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A soul of fire: celebrating Samuel Johnson

September 18 marks the anniversary of the birthday of Samuel Johnson. Although he wrote a number of works, he is arguably best known for the 1755 publication A Dictionary of the English Language. While it was by no means the first ever dictionary published, its influence was remarkable, not least upon the dictionary which would surpass it in terms of coverage of the English language – the Oxford English Dictionary. The compilers of the first edition of the OED were able to use Johnson’s dictionary as a word list – if a word was included by Johnson, it encouraged the OED editors to follow suit.

The sheer elegance of many of Johnson’s definitions so impressed James Murray that some of them were reproduced wholesale (being marked with a ‘J’), with the feeling that they could not be improved upon. But perhaps even more importantly, the quotation evidence that supported many of Johnson’s definitions was also of great use to the editors of the OED first edition, not only the examples that he included from some of the literary greats (Shakespeare, Milton, you name them), but also illustrative examples that he wrote himself (more of this later).

From one harmless drudge to another?

As all students are told, it is important to write a plan of any essay that you are about to undertake and it seems Johnson was an early pioneer of this approach. He set out his aims and methodology for his dictionary in Plan of a Dictionary of the English Language in 1747 and the dictionary itself was completed in 1755. It took 9 years to complete, although Johnson – perhaps ambitiously – estimated he would finish it in 3. What seems most remarkable is that Johnson wrote his dictionary almost singlehandedly.

It goes without saying that any dictionary published before the latter half of the 20th century was completed without the advantages of computers or – even more recently – the Internet. As a research tool, the World Wide Web allows the modern-day historical lexicographer access to works and researchers that our predecessors probably didn’t even dream of, and when grappling with a definition for an unfamiliar concept, it can be invaluable. Even though James Murray compiled the OED armed only with pen and paper, he had a crack team of workers in his Scriptorium and he famously enlisted outside help with his calls to readers. Johnson, it appears, had only a few helpers. This puts his definition for lexicographer into perspective:

LEXICO’GRAPHER. n. A writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge, that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words.

As previously mentioned, Johnson also included some self-written sentences to further exemplify his definitions, and he used one of the senses of the adjective dull to say a little bit more about the toils of lexicography:

Not exhilarating; not delightful; as, to make dictionaries is dull work.

Imagine saying that in an end-of-year appraisal.

It couldn’t happen here

While Johnson was undoubtedly a pioneer in dictionary-making and many of his methodologies form the basis of modern historical lexicography, there are some divergences. One of the basic tenets to which lexicographers adhere is that our definitions are descriptive and should never betray any personal feelings that we as editors might have about a word. We are scrupulous in our attempts to record language as it is used and our ultimate aim is for the reader to go away feeling enlightened as to what a particular word means or how it is used. That goes for any of our dictionaries, whatever the size or coverage. It would seem anathema, then, for editorial policy to allow us some kind of personal commentary. But some of Johnson’s definitions do just that. As a Scot, I am particularly fond of expressing faux outrage at his definition of oats:

OATS. n. A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.

I mentioned that our aim is to provide explanation for anyone choosing to look up the meaning of a word. Would you feel much more enlightened if you looked up Johnson’s definition of the verb worm, in order to find out about treating animals for a particular ailment?

To deprive a dog of something, nobody knows what, under his tongue, which is said to prevent him, nobody knows why, from running mad. 

Or how about looking up the word tarantula and getting some rather unexpected information on what to do should one bite you?

TARANTULA. n. An insect whose bite is only cured by musick.

With this, Johnson seems to be following an earlier belief that music had this healing property, as seen in the quotation from Sir Philip Sidney that he used to exemplify his definition.

Non-cats and big blue wobbly things

If I may be irreverent for just a moment, it would seem remiss in a blog piece about Johnson not to mention his legacy in popular culture, which means that even those who would claim to know nothing about the history of dictionaries might have a light bulb moment when hearing his name. He was portrayed by Robbie Coltrane in an episode of the British sitcom Blackadder, in an episode entitled Ink and Inkability. Quite what the real Johnson would have made of Baldrick’s attempt at definition-writing we’ll never know. I suspect neither ‘cat – not a dog’ nor ‘sea – big blue wobbly thing that mermaids live in’ would quite make the grade. But it has meant that his name has endured outside the relatively narrow world of historical lexicography.

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